A Sexism Wake-Up Call To Young Women — Election 2016

(A Slightly edited version of this blog ALSO APPEARED on Huffington Post and currently has over 6,000 likes, which hopefully means it has struck a chord — that young women in particular are reconsidering where they stand and what they might do.)


When I taught at USC with Betty Friedan, she wanted us to be in the “second stage” when men and women would live and work together in mutual respect. But we are still far from the second stage.

Sure, we can convince ourselves that gender had nothing to do with the outcome of the presidential election this week. But that would be deceiving ourselves.  How often we’ve heard that Hillary Clinton has coldness in her eyes, speaks too loudly, dresses wrong for a woman and other comments based on gender expectations many of us refuse to examine.

Malcolm Gladwell attributed a large part of Hillary’s “dislikability” to her being a woman.

Here is what Gladwell had to say even as he hesitated to draw too many conclusions from one election cycle:

“To me, the most disturbing lesson about this election is that the United States is a good deal less open to women in positions of power than it would like to pretend that it is.”

He explained:

“She is being penalized for having a series of traits that people find unacceptable in a woman.”  He noted the negative perceptions of Clinton predates her email and Benghazi scandals. “This goes back two decades now.”


He said that there are traits that women in leadership are “allowed to have.”

“It is very difficult for society to accept an ambitious woman — an openly ambitions woman… We continue to expect that women will have a kind of modesty in positions of authority.  It makes it easier for us to accept that they have moved into a man’s realm.”

It wasn’t elitism that alienated many from Hillary, because Hillary came from ordinary circumstances. Donald Trump is elite and has been since birth, yet the label stuck to her.  Why?  Because it worked for some who needed a handy reason to reject her and to reject that they might be sexist, whether male or female themselves.

Gladwell also pointed to a “moral licensing” America has in having voted for a black presidential candidate.  It sort of allows us to be more biased now because we weren’t last time.

And we might add that calling out sexism is often met with sarcastic quips about political correctness.  “Oh, here we go again with political correctness” is a handy sentence for dismissing claims of actual sexism in language.  Don’t fall for it.

Gladwell’s views are not a shock to anyone who has been following gender issues in work and government. I wrote the reprint bestselling Harvard Business Review case “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk” about the challenges women faced  getting ahead at work in the 1990s. My book  They Don’t Get It, Do Theyfollowed.  Betty Friedan described it as a “blueprint for real communication between the sexes.”  In the process of providing that blueprint, the book also describes the many dysfunctional patterns in day-to-day male-female relationships and sexist perceptions that hold women back in their careers.

Salon writer Amanda Marcotte wrote this week that America has essentially chosen to self-destruct rather than elect a woman. Let’s hope that’s not the case.  Yet, she makes it well.

Even before the election, I feared that the U.S. wasn’t ready for a woman president — that the unstated fears and disdain for women’s success, many rationalized as other things, would rear their ugly heads.

As President Obama graciously admitted, Hillary Clinton was more ready to be president than he was when he took office and more ready than Bill Clinton.  Vice President Biden spoke of how difficult it is for a woman — harder than for him — to demonstrate her competence.

Hillary Clinton is exceptional in so many ways, prepared and superb in her debates, but many in the media, Donald Trump and people not ready for a woman president picked her apart.  It was death by a thousand cuts.

There are few women who haven’t experienced some version of this in their own lives — gender expectations and insecurities being used against them.  Hence, that sick feeling that many women are still experiencing days after the election.

Where does this leave us?  When will we see a female president?  If our most prepared woman was rejected for not being sufficiently sweet and charming, being distrusted even as her opponent lied constantly, we’re in trouble.

Sweet and charming women tend to be admired, but they’re also perceived as too weak to lead.  Gender is a Catch-22 for most women — be highly assertive and competent and you’re cold and maybe a bitch or be sweet and “feminine” and you’re a pleasure to be with but unfit to lead.

It’s easy to push the gender issue aside. Sexism is so easy to deny. I expect some will write to me having not read this article clearly.  They’ll say I’m totally blaming sexism.  That’s not the case.  But it’s a significant factor and one not going away unless we keep up the fight.

The election was a wake-up call. It has shaken many to their core. It has shown us how far people will go to avoid having a woman in The White House.  It has shown us that our children’s children may not see a woman president.

Yes, people wanted change. Yes, the Democratic Party has fallen out of touch with their base.  And yes the 30 plus years Michael Moore described as having created a Donald Trump candidate definitely contributed as did other factors.  But part of America would rather have a racist, sexist, narcissist with no experience as president than an exceptionally prepared, tireless, impressive woman with their best interests at heart.

One inadvertent good thing may have come from the 2016 presidential election.  Young women, and many young men, who thought sexism was a thing of the past received a loud-and-clear wake-up call. The job is not done for them or their children. The race is not over.  We know for sure now that no generation can just sit this one out.  Sexism goes underground sometimes, but it doesn’t go away.  If we don’t face this fact, there will never be a female U.S. president.  And that’s just not acceptable.




**They Don’t Get It, Do They? was recently added to Amazon Kindle as a re-release with a new forward — given its continued relevance. Here you’ll find not only patterns we’re stuck in that limit women’s effectiveness in whatever they choose to do,  but also how women, in particular, and men can end them.  Daily conversations are the building blocks of careers and relationships.  How we manage them determines our futures.   It’s either $2.99 or $0 on Kindle unlimited.


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5 Responses to A Sexism Wake-Up Call To Young Women — Election 2016

  1. Jodie says:

    kathleen, in processing things over the past few days i’ve realized it goes even deeper for me… not only could america not elect a woman, they elected someone who (publicly) 1-called megyn kelly a crazy bimbo 2-said she had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’ as though women’s periods make them evil 3-said america wouldn’t vote for carly fiorina’s (implied: ugly) face and 4-led rallies where attendees regularly chanted “she’s a witch” “hang the bitch” “trump that bitch” “lock her up” and more. believe me i know he’s said worse about other minority groups. but the fact that this unabashed name-calling, bullying and denigration had no effect on his ability to win really woke me up to how little progress has actually been made for women. his approach to criticizing women is on par with that of a 7th grade boy when i was in middle school in the 80s. i guess it’s no wonder that for halloween 2 ten-year-old boys in our neighborhood dressed as trump carrying “hillary for prison” signs (one of them the son of our local republican state senator).

    • admin says:

      Jodie: You’re absolutely right in my book. A large section of American voters not only rationalized or dismissed the disgusting and insulting things he said about women, but went further by condoning them. About dressing a child for Halloween with a “Hillary for prison” sign, there is no excuse for such vile behavior, mean-spirited behavior by adults. Thank you for writing this comment. I hope you’ll be coming back to the site. You’re very perceptive. Kathleen

    • I cut and pasted 200 headline “fails” of Donald Trump’s in the first 30 days after November 8th. I was going to call it “Donald Trumps first 100 fails in the 30 days after the election.

      This scoundrel male gets a free pass to commit every transgression he likes, he’s a guy, so he gets a free license to all manner of boorishness. And the hits just keep on coming. A week later I cut and pasted 200 more!!!!!

      Women in the U.S. are either virgin saints or whores. Either or, nothing else.

      Hillary isn’t a virgin saint,,,sooooooo,,,,,and she made one mistake, which can NOT be tolerated. She had a private server, as have other Secretary of States in the past. Unforgiveable!

      That said, I find it horrifying that a poll was done nationally, earlier this year, asking millennial women of voting ages between 18 and 25, if they prefer having a male president or would they prefer a woman president just as equally?

      75% of the women polled replied, they “only” prefer a male president, that they actually would not want to see a woman as the country’s president. Wow! What the Hell?!!!

      Even women don’t want to be equal.

      That, that’s scary!

      So it didn’t matter if it was Hillary or some other woman, any woman candidate was going to be prejudiced against, even by her own gender!

      This dishonest contract between straight men and women, this hetero-fascist paradigm has got to shift before we can have any kind of honest discussions at all.

      Thank God for men like John Lewis, who is now being taken out of context by the media, ala Steve Kornacki, and falsely accused of dividing the country in the same way the left criticizes Donald Trump – Whhha? they’re not keeping in context that Hillary won 3 million more majority of voters, that Comey with his chicanery, and the redistricting, gerrymandering, voter intimidation, last minute voting laws in place to redistrict voters with more I.D. requirements, voters turned away and voter obstruction from the polls in battle ground states, why do the Republicans, slander, lie, use dirty politics, have to cheat in order to win? You’re darn right Trump is an illegitimate President. Thank you sweet Hillary, Madam “UnPresidented.”

  2. Kathleen, you have the extraordinary gift to condense my feelings into words. Thank you for providing a guiding light for your daughters who follow in your brilliant footsteps.

    • admin says:

      Wendy: Thank you very much. There is so much we could change if only we attended more to the interpersonal dynamics of gender. We shouldn’t tell our daughters that they can be whatever they want and leave it at that. We should add that on route they need to keep their eyes and ears open for patterns, dysfunctional and otherwise, that might keep them from reaching their goals. Then they would have a better chance. We need to tell them that fair is nice, but be ready for unfair and here is how. That’s why I write these blogs and books about communication, negotiation and politics always with some part of them devoted to gender differences. Then they’d know how to respond when patronized or dismissed, for example. They’d see political roadblocks earlier. Of course, you know that. But we’ll have to keep telling people until they send girls out ready to deal with the inevitable resistance that emerges when you seek to lead — to say nothing of the men who want to work well with women and need a roadmap. All the best, Kathleen

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